Among the doubts related to jurisprudence (fiqh) raised by some Muslims is why Shias prostrate on earth or the turbah. There are various questions on the subject which we have dissected addressing each point separately:

1) What is turbah?
2) Why Shias prostrate on the turbah?
3) Is prostration on the turbah a bidah (innovation) or Sunnah?
4) Do all Sunni scholars condemn the practice?
5) Is praying on a piece of cloth an undesirable act?
6) Why Shias prefer the earth of Karbala?

1) What is turbah?

A turbah is a piece of earth in the form of a tablet sufficient enough to place one’s forehead in prostration.

2) Why Shias prostrate on the turbah?

Shias believe that the best method of prostration is to place one’s head upon the earth, since this is the lowest point that one can place oneself when remembering Allah. Prostrating itself is a gesture of humility before Allah and if performed on the earth, it assumes more significance and merit than prostrating on carpets, for instance.

Therefore celebrate the praises of thy Lord, and be of those who prostrate themselves in adoration (Surah Hijr (15): Verse 98)

According to Islamic jurisprudence prostration must be performed on pure earth or on what grows on it, provided that it is not eaten or worn. This includes dust, stone, sand and grass, provided that it is not a mineral. Prostration on paper is permitted, because it is made of a material which grows on earth, but not cloth or carpet. This act is proven from the Holy Prophet’s Sunnah and several reports indicate that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) used to prostrate on the earth. It is considered humble to prostrate on Allah’s earth, rather than man made cloth and there are many traditions to this effect. The word used in traditions is ‘Khumrah’ which has been translated as ‘Sajdagaah’ i.e. place of prostration by Sunni Scholars.

3) Is prostration on the turbah a bidah (innovation) or Sunnah?

Praying on the earth was the confirmed Sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and his companions.
The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) explained the reasons for prostrating on soil in the most beautiful manner. In Kanz al-Ummaal we find a tradition that orders rubbing of forehead on earth at the time of prostration with the reasoning behind it:

Rub yourself with earth because it is mercy for you, mercy just like the kind mother has mercy for her children. Surely you have been created from it, it is your livelihood (food) and in it you will be buried after death.
Kanz al-Ummaal vol 7 tradition 19778

The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) made it compulsory to prostrate on soil

There are many traditions that clearly prove that the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) prostrated on earth and ordered his companions to do likewise.

We read in Sunan-e-Abi Dawud, Urdu edition, pge 381, 376:
The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) had the sign of earth on his forehead and nose, due to prostration on earth.
Similarly when Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (a.s.) was asked about the rationale behind prostrating on the earth, he said: ‘Because prostration is surrendering and humiliation to Allah. Therefore, it shouldn’t be on what is worn and eaten because people are slaves of what they eat and wear, and prostration is worshipping of Allah, so one should not place his forehead during prostration on that which is worshipped by the people (food and clothing) and leads to conceits.’

Wasaail al-Shia vol 3 pg 591

The people closest to the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and his Ahle Bait (a.s.) were very firm in their practice of prostrating on the earth and, in doing so, were following the tradition of their grandfather, the Prophet of Allah (s.a.w.a.).

Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (a.s.) said: ‘Prostration is not permitted except on the earth and whatever grows from it excepting for things that are eaten or on cotton.’

When Imam Sadiq (a.s.) was asked whether having one’s turban touch the earth instead of the forehead was acceptable, he replied that this was not sufficient unless the forehead actually touched the earth.
Wasaail al-Shia vol 3 pg 592

All the traditions mentioned below have been taken from vol 7 of Kanz al-Ummaal from the section on laws/traditions on prostration:

From Umm-e-Attiyah it is narrated that the prayers of one who does not place his nose right on the earth is not accepted.
Kanz al-Ummal vol 7 tradition 19804

We should also point out that Muttaqi al-Hindi raises no objection to this tradition while recording it in Kanz al-Ummaal.

We also read:

Ibn Attiyah narrates – ‘Verily God does not accept the prayers of one who does not put his nose right on the earth.’
Kanz al-Ummal, vol 7 tradition 19775

The second tradition (no 19775) is from Ibn Attiyah and the earlier one is from Umme Attiyah (no 19804). Both traditions underscore importance of placing the nose on the earth with the first one stressing on rubbing (masah) the nose on earth. More importantly there is no objection with either of these traditions otherwise Muttaqi Hindi would have quoted as he does with analysis of other traditions in Kanz al-Ummaal.

Clearly there are large number of consecutively narrated traditions (i.e. with tawaatur) from Sunni sources which prove the Shiite position of prostrating on earth and rubbing of face on it.

In another tradition again the concept of praying on earth/soil is mentioned by Dailami who narrates from Abdullah b. Masood, the respected companion:
Verily Allah does not look at the prayers of a person who does not touch his palms on the earth/soil.

There are many more traditions on the subject:

Prostrate your face on earth/soil towards Allah.
Kanz al-Ummaal vol 7 trad 19,809

And a similar (albeit mursal) tradition has been narrated by Abdul Razzaaq from Khalid:
O Suhaib, prostrate your face on earth towards Allah.
Kanz al-Ummaal vol 7 trad 19,810

None of the traditions have been criticized in Kanz al-Ummaal in terms of authenticity of content or reliability of narrators.

4) Do all Sunni scholars condemn the practice?

To isolate the Shias and brand their actions as innovations, a section of Muslims propagate that prostration on the earth is condemned by all Sunni scholars.

In this regard, we read the decree of the revered companion – Abdullah b. Abbas:
He who doesn’t put his nose with his forehead on the earth/soil when prostrating, his prayers are void.

This is reported from:
1. Kanz al-Ummaal vol 7, pg 464 (No. 19,802)
2. Al Mo’jam al-Awsat by Haafiz Tabarani vol 3, pg 139 (No. 4,111)

Al Muttaqi in his Kanz al-Ummaal took the above narration from Tabarani. Immediately after the tradition, the author notes- There are differences regarding some of the narrators because of their Tashayyo.’ (Shiite inclination)

In response to this we will point out that this is the opinion of Haisami as quoted from his book Majma al-Zawaaid. It is interesting that after raising the Shia bogey, he says:
And its narrators (Rijaal) are most reliable.

Even then, Haisami does not declare that all Sunni scholars consider the chain of narrators to be weak on account of Shiite inclination of certain narrators, rather he says there is ‘difference of opinion’ amongst the scholars and only ‘some of them allege’ that the narrators were Shias. On these grounds, the narration cannot be rejected nor can this opinion be held as the consensus of Sunni scholars.

After all greater differences are documented among the Sunni scholars on other matters related to the prayers like placing the hand above/below the navel, by the side, right over left and so on. Historically many decrees have been issued by one group against another on such issues. So differences in prostration on the turbah cannot be singled out.

It must also be pointed out that the above opinion is also not supported or endorsed by Muttaqi Hindi (i.e of accusing some narrators of of being Shia). Rather he chose to give Haisami’s ruling to consolidate his position that this tradition is with a chain of narrators that is reliable.

Allah’s Apostle (s.a.w.a.) used to pray on a Khumrah

Meaning of Khumrah

The traditions that report about Holy Prophet’s (s.a.w.a.) place of prostration usually state:
The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) used to prostrate on Khumrah.

Sunni scholars have defined the term Khumrah as follows:
Dr. Mushin Khan in his English translation of Sahih al-Bukhaari vol 1, book 8, no 376 defines Khumrah as: A small mat sufficient just for the face and the hands while prostrating during prayers.

Ibn Asir in his Jaame al-Usool has written:
Khumrah is (like that) upon which the Shias of our time perform their prostrations.
Ibne Asir in Jaame al-Usool, (Cairo, 1969), vol 5, p 467

Allamah Waheed al-Zamaan while commenting on this tradition states in his commentary on Sahih al Bukhaari:
All the jurists unanimously agree that it is permissible to prostrate on Sajdagaah, but Umer b. Abdul Aziz says that he used to prostrate on the mud which was supposed to be brought for him, and Ibne Abi Shaibah narrates from Urwah that he considered prostrating on anything else other the Sajdagaah as undesirable.
Tayseer al-Baari Sharhe Sahih Bukhaari, vol 1 pg 275, published by Taj Company Limited

Imam Bukhaari and Imam Abu Dawood have both devoted entire chapters on prostration on clay.
1. Tayseer al-Baari Sharhe Sahih Bukhaari, vol 1 pg 275
2. Sunan-e-Abi Dawood, vol 1, pg 291, translated by Maulana Waheed al-Zamaan

The prostration of Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) on clay is widely acknowledged so much so most narrators have documented it in their books.

According to Imam Shaukani, a famous Sunni scholar, more than ten companions of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) have narrated traditions mentioning his prostration on a Khumrah. And he lists all Sunni sources recording such traditions including Sahih Muslim, Sahih Tirmizi, Sunan-e-Abi Dawud, Sunan-e-Nesaai and many others.
Naail al-Awtaar, Chapter of Prostration on the Khumrah, vol 2 pg 128

In Saheeh Tirmizi, Abbas narrates that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) prostrated on Sajdagaah.
Sahih Tirmizi, vol 1, pg 156, translated by Badee al-Zamaan.

It is on the basis of these traditions that Imam Malik said:
Other than on the earth, to prostrate on anything else or herbs or plants is undesirable.
Al-Muhallah, vol 3 pg 115 by Imam Ibne Hazm Andalusi Urdu translation

5) Is praying on a piece of cloth an undesirable act?

The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) commanded the companions not to prostrate on cloth and remove turbans so that forehead could touch the ground

There are many reports which indicate that the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) forbade prostrating on cloth (or with turbans) and never did so himself.

We read in books of traditions:
When the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) would prostrate he would lift his Amamah (turban) from his forehead.
1. Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra by Ibn Saad vol 1 pg 352
2. Kanz al-Ummaal vol 7 pg 49 No.17,896

On the same lines we read that the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.) instructed a companion to remove his turban in prostration.

أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ رَأَى رَجُلاً يَسْجُدُ بِجَنْبِهِ ، وَقَدْ أَعْتَمَ عَلَى جَبْهَتِهِ ، فَحَسَرَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ عَنْ جَبْهَتِهِ.

The Apostle of Allah (s.a.w.a.) saw a man prostrate next to him and his forehead was covered, so the Apostle of Allah (s.a.w.a.) uncovered his forehead.
1. Sunan al-Kubra by Baihaqi vol 2 pg 151 no. 2,659
2. Asad al-Ghaabah by Ibne Aseer vol 3 pg 9

Saeed b. Musayyab stated that praying on cloth was innovation

The highly respected Saeed b. Musayyab who was among the taabe’een and a leading jurist held the following view about praying on carpet/cloth. Ibn Saad records from Qatadah:

أخبرنا قتادة قال سألت سعيد بن المسيب عن الصلاة على الطنفسة فقال محدث

I asked Saeed b. Mussayyab about praying on carpets. He said ‘It is something new’ i.e. bidah.
Tabaqaat al-Kubra by Ibn Saad vol 5 (online version), vol 3 part 5 pg 160 (Urdu version)

Abdullah b. Masood never prostrated other than on soil

It was the practice of the great companion Abdullah b. Masood never to prostrate on anything other than soil. We read the testimony of another companion – Abu Obaidah recorded by Al Haisami in his Majmaa al-Zawaaid vol 2 pg 57

Abu Obaidah narrates that the companion Ibn Masood never prayed or prostrated except on the soil.
Majmaa al-Zawaaid vol 2 trad 2,272

Ibn Taymiyyah’s decree that prayer on a mat is an innovation and people should pray on earth

Ibn Taymiyyah issued the following verdict in Majmoo al-Fatawa:

‘….he was asked about the prostration on a prayer mat/carpet in the mosque and prayer (performing of Salaat) on it: Is it an act of innovation?’

So he replied in the affirmative:

Praise be to the Lord of the Worlds, as for the prayer (Salaat) on the prayer mats on which the the performer prays, that is neither from the Sunnah of the Salaf of muhaajireen or ansaar nor from the Sunnah of Taabe’een after them… but in fact all these people prayed in the mosque on soil. Not even one of them ever took a prayer mat or carpet to pray on for their Salaat. And it is narrated from Abdul Rahman b. Mahdi:

When the carpets/prayer mats first came to Medinah Imam Maalik ordained about confiscating them (or prohibited people from using them) and then it was said to him i.e. the narrator (Abdul Rahman b. Mahdi) – And know that certainly the carpet/prayer mat in our mosque is an innovation.

And (this is) in the Sahih from Abu Saeed al-Khudri in the tradition of Etekaaf of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.).
Majmoo al-Fatawa by Ibn Taymiyyah vol 22 pg 163

6) Why Shias prefer the earth of Karbala?

The special characteristics of the soil of Karbala (Iraq) were known and this was the case during the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) as also later:

Umm Salamah says: I saw Husain (a.s.) sitting in the lap of his grandfather, the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) who had red soil in his hand. The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) was kissing the dust and weeping. I asked him (s.a.w.a.) about the soil. The Prophet (s.a.w.a.) said – Jibrail informed me that my son, this Husain, will be killed in Iraq. He has brought this earth for me from the land (of martyrdom). I am weeping for the suffering that will befall my Husain.

Then the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) handed the dust to Umme Salmah and informed her – When you see this soil turn into blood, you will know that my son Husain has been slaughtered.

Umme Salmah preserved the soil in a bottle and observed it until it turned to blood on the day of Ashurah, 10th of Muharram 61 A.H. Then she knew that Husain b. Ali (a.s.) had been martyred.
1. Al-Mustadrak, vol. 4 pg 398 by Haakem
2. Siyaar Aalam al-Nubala vol 3 pg 194 by Zahabi
3. Al-Bidaayah wa al-Nihaayah vol 6 pg 230 by Ibne Kasir
4. Khasaa’is al-Kubra vol 2 pg 450 and Jami al-Jawaami vol 1 pg 26 both books by Suyuti
5. Tahzib al-Tahzib vol 2 pg 346 by Ibne Hajar al-Asqalaani

Ameerul Momineen (a.s.) passed by Karbala after the battle of Siffin. He took a handful of its soil and exclaimed – On this spot some men will be slain, and will enter Paradise without reckoning.
Ibne Hajar al-Asqaalani, Tahzib al-Tahzib vol 2 pg 348

Is it compulsory to prostrate on the earth of Karbala?

It is not compulsory to prostrate on the clay from Karbala, rather it is highly recommended.
Shias prefer to prostrate on the earth of Karbala because of the importance given to it by the Prophet (s.a.w.a.) and the infallible Imams (a.s.). After the martyrdom of Imam Husain (a.s.), his son Imam Zain al-Abedeen (a.s.) picked up some earth, declared it to be sacred dust, and kept it in a pouch. The Imams (a.s.) used to prostrate on it and recite glorifications (tasbih) and divine praises from beads made from the earth.
(Al-Manaaqib vol 2 pg 251 by Ibne Shahre Aashob)

They also encouraged Shias to perform prostrations on them, with the understanding that it was not compulsory, but with a view to achieving greater reward. The Imams (a.s.) insisted that prostration before Allah must be on clean earth only and that it was preferable if it was performed on that earth of Karbala.
(Misbaah al-Mutahajjid pg 511 by Shaikh Tusi (r.a.))
(Man la Yahzaraho al-Faqih vol 1 pg 174)

The Shias believe since it is preferable to prostrate on earth it is highly recommended to prostrate on sacred earth blessed with the martyrdom of Imam Husain (a.s.). Just like it is highly recommended to pray with one’s best clothes and apply the best perfume. Prayers without the turbah of Karbala is accepted but gain higher chance of divine acceptance with the turbah.

It is a pity that some people maliciously claim that the Shias worship stones or that they worship Imam Husain (a.s.) The truth is that Shias worship Allah alone like other Muslims and their prostration is on the turbah, not to the turbah which as we have established is in harmony with the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.a.). To claim that Shias worship Imam Husain (a.s.) and his turbah is to ape non-Muslims who accuse Muslims of worshipping the Holy Kaaba in the prayers and the Hajj and Umrah. The reply Muslims give to the non-Muslims regarding the Kaabah is the reply we give regarding the turbah.